Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Other Talent of Léonardus Nardus

This is another in a series of occasional posts on artists-cum-chess players (or vice versa). “Two-Talents” in other words, except that in the present case our subject had many more; possibly too many for his own good.

The story of Léonardus Nardus (1868 -1955) - and it is some story - has been told here and there in the chess press, yet it deserves to be still more widely known (by coincidence, he gets a passing mention on page 51 of the latest issue of Chess Magazine, March 2012). His escapades in the art world, where too he is a well-nigh forgotten figure, are also documented in a few places. This post relies, almost entirely, on these accounts. My thanks to those, and also a couple of correspondents. They are all acknowledged at the end.

In all things Nardus you have to be wary of appearances; and the pretentious “Léonardus Nardus” was not his original name. He legally adopted it in 1911, having used it as a flag of convenience in earlier adventures. He was initially Salomonson Leonard Solomon, born in Utrecht. He studied at the Academy of Beaux-Arts in Amsterdam, and when a young man was to be found in Paris, and then in Argentina in 1889 seeking his fortune in gold exploration. In this he failed, but in 1894 he mined a richer seam: wealthy Americans eager to spend freely, even incautiously, to indulge their taste for fine art as a display of their nouveau richesse.

Caveat emptor” might have been Nardus’s mission statement and he was happy to allow his clients to think his wares were the real-deal, when many (though to be fair, not all) were just second-rate, if not downright fakes. Let’s not beat about the bush: “fabulously dishonest” is how he was described by art scholar Jonathan Lopez in 2008.

Among his victims was Philadelphian Peter Widener, who made his money from tramcars. Not short of a buck or two he built this modest pile, Lynnewood Hall, to house his art collection.

Widener was himself taken for a merry ride, though Nardus never admitted fraud (a position loyally endorsed by his grandson, to this day). On the warpath in 1907/8 Widener was persuaded by wiser counsel not to expose his gullibility to public ridicule, and experts were discreetly called in to confront Nardus and settle matters behind closed doors (even so, the scandal found its way into the press). Nardus agreed to take back, and replace, some of his dodgy merchandise, which he later auctioned off.

By now “l’homme aux cinquante millions” had made his fortune from his scheming – straight and crooked - and back in Europe cut a swathe through polite society, including marriage in London in 1904 (producing two daughters), living in the manner to which he had become accustomed in Suresnes, just across the Seine from the Bois de Boulogne. As if not to be outdone by the conspicuous display of wealth in the upstart New World, this was his Old World abode:

Le Château d'Arnouville-les-Gonesses,
with an Orangerie behind the tree.

He spoke four languages, and travelled prodigiously, notching up London, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia where he settled in 1921 joined by his daughters and their governess, having decoupled from his first wife in the mean time.

He was an able artist in his own right, with an apparently effortless facility in a John Singer Sargent sort of way, with the same aptitude for portraiture. Here he paints himself, and succumbs to the besetting temptation of all portraitists: that of showing their subject from their best angle.

Nardus par lui-même

He was clearly a sure-footed talent. One can imagine him casually dashing-off this, and others like it, while skipping one step ahead of his pursuers.

Nardus also played a decent game of chess. Even while otherwise up to no-good in the States he frequented the Manhattan Chess Club, as this press cutting from 1906 mentions. It shows him disposing of a strong French player, with complimentary notes by Frank Marshall no less.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 30 Sept 1906.
See historical footnote for game-player, and correction.

No doubt a chess/art synergy was at work in his relationship with fellow art collector, pioneer reconstructive surgeon and strong amateur Johannes Esser, also a Dutchman, who secured a match with sometime world champion hopeful David Janowski in 1910 through the mediation of Nardus – it was even played at Suresnes. Nardus had manoeuvred himself into the role of de facto agent and gate-keeper for Janowski, and Frank Marshall while the latter was in Europe.

He and Marshall had a relationship spread over several decades. There’s the press cutting above where Nardus is described as Marshall’s second in a match against Janowski in 1905, and then there's a game from 1910 where Nardus actually mates him (though Marshall gives the appearance of having been asleep on the job). Marshall included Nardus’ photograph in the frontispiece of Marshall’s Chess Swindles of 1914…

…and dedicates the book to his “dear and steadfast friend”. Perhaps Marshall was, say, returning the favour of financial sponsorship from Nardus. Who knows. But: Nardus featured in a book on “swindles”? That sounds too much like a knowing tease. Anyway, their relationship extended at least until 1930 or so, when Marshall spent six weeks in Tunisia chez Nardus, and wrote a personal commendation of Nardus’s encouragement of local chess.

Our, ahem, hero provided financial support to David Janowski (for which, as a compulsive gambler, he was no doubt grateful) putting up the money to enable him to play Lasker in 1910. There is even a recorded position of a Nardus victory over his client/protégé played in Biarritz in 1912.

Nardus (black) to play and win v Janowski, Biarritz 1912.
The position has been given with a white pawn on h4.

Nardus called a halt to his generosity (or self-interest) toward Janowski when in 1915 he publicly, and ill-advisedly, declared Nardus to be “an idiot” for an uninvited suggestion in a post-mortem.

Amid all this wheeling and dealing Nardus had found time to compete in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics winning a bronze medal with the Dutch épée team (some achievement, though tempered by the refusal of top-dogs France and Italy to compete). Chess and art combine again in Nardus’s 1912 portraits of chess players, including Frank Marshall (later sold in 1917, as this sale catalogue shows)…

...and lightning sketches of Hoffer and some of the players at the Scheveningen tournament of 1913, where Janowski finished second behind Alekhine. The Field was impressed enough to print his lively studies on two occasions, but embedded this set, unaccountably, within an in-depth analysis of the scoring system of tennis.

From The Field 2 August 1913.
Top: L. Hoffer and R.J. Loman "In difficult positions he does not smoke!" Middle: J.Mieses. Bottom: C.
(sic) J. Breyer and Dr. Olland.

Another side of Nardus is revealed in his generous gift of paintings (including the portrait of Marshall shown above), sold in Amsterdam in 1917, to raise money for the Belgian Red Cross in the depths of the First War – though, as nothing is straightforward with Nardus, maybe it also served his purpose to wrap himself in the mantle of saintly benevolence.

But the Second War played havoc, even though he was in Tunisia. As slippery as ever, and to avoid legal problems with his ex-wife over title to his substantial art collection, he had, in 1928, set up a joint ownership arrangement with his friend Arnold van Burren in Haarlem, to whom the collection was entrusted. However, it was confiscated by the Nazis in 1941 and sold off. Van Burren sadly perished in an extermination camp. Nardus’s heirs succeeded in 2007 in gaining restitution of some of the looted artworks: two 15th Century Florentine paintings.

At the end of his larger-than-life Nardus died in straightened circumstances in 1955, but was honoured by an exhibition of his own works in Tunisia in 2007. This ravishing picture shows the sort of thing he was capable of at the top of his game:

La Bedouine

We’ll take it on trust that the pieces in the retrospective were painted by Nardus himself. By contrast, suggestions that he had himself occasionally passed off his own handiwork as that of more illustrious artists - that he was therefore himself a forger - continue to surface, suspicions encouraged by his having painted, in 1916, the portrait of (and therefore having associated with) master forger Theo van Wijngaarden. The latest accusation is that back in 1917 he knocked out a “Van Gogh” or two, and successfully sold them as such.

So, that was the story of Léo Nardus who, like another - Da Vinci - was of many talents, in no particular order: artist, swordsman, swindler, linguist, philanthropist, benefactor, fixer, forger, and last but not least, chess-player.

Historical Footnote

It is possible that this post provides the first published outing of the Nardus-Gromer (sic) game since it appeared, in relative obscurity, in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle back in 1906. It also seems likely that his opponent was in fact Jacques Grommer (it is not often that our humble blog gets the chance to offer a correction one hundred and five years later) who was successful in tournaments at the café de la Régence in Paris, earning him the unofficial sobriquet of French champion as given in the clipping. Grommer emigrated to the States, but not until 1912, so for that reason it seems probable that the game was played in Paris.

Acknowledgements (but any errors in this post are down to its author)

Thanks to Olimpiu Urcan, and also to Dominique Thimognier of Héritage Echecs Français, for their generous assistance.
Edward Winter's Chess Notes compilation on Nardus provides the most substantial and comprehensive documentation.
Wikipedia has an article on Nardus, in Dutch.
You can find Marshall's Chess Swindles here.
Two Tunisian sites show a nice selection of Nardus artwork: Tunis Art Gallery and Harissa.
Antonio De Robertis' article, in Italian, discusses the likely Van Gogh forgeries.
Jonathan Lopez writing on Nardus in the art world in Apollo 2007 can be accessed via his website
The finding of the Restitution Committee, in the Hague, on Nardus is here.

A problem with Nardus's paintings on the internet is that most are undated. The Marshall portrait however (along with companion portraits of Taubenhaus, Lasker, and Janowsky) is actually signed and dated 1912. A copy of the catalogue for the 1917 sale showing all these, in black and white, is in the V&A's National Art Library.

The Other Talent of Philip Poyser
The Other Talent of Bill Hook
The Other Talent of Bill Hook's Friend
Chess in Art Index


Patrick Neslias said...

The Exact name was LEONARDUS SALOMON
The restitution case was in 2009 1.65
The exhibition in Tunisia was in 1997

Martin Smith said...

Thank you, Mr Neslias, for your corrections and information.